What is respect

We got in a discussion in comments on Just the questions, ma’am about whether it is reasonable to demand respect, which entailed a discussion of what respect is and what people mean by it. I agreed that it’s reasonable enough to demand a minimal version of respect, but I pointed out 1) that people often mean something very maximal by the word and 2) that that fact is often disguised because the minimal version is available. So I was pleased, while re-reading Simon Backburn’s ‘Religion and Respect’ to see this:

‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term. I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions. We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one.

This is exactly what I was (and am) claiming.

Phrases like ‘equal concern and respect’ trip off the tongue. But in any more than the most minimal sense of ‘deserving equal protection of the law’ or equal toleration, there are, quite properly, gradations of respect. We respect skill, ability, judgement, and experience. The opinion of someone who has demonstrated these qualities is more important to us than the opinion of a newcomer, or someone who is foolish and wild in his reasonings. We defer to some people more than we defer to others, and this deference is a measure of respect.

Same again. And to ‘demand’ the upper level of the gradation is to demand something that can’t be given as a mere act of will or generosity, and that thus is not ‘respect’ in the sense intended; therefore it is futile to demand it. I can’t demand that people respect me as a mountaineer, because I’m not one. If I do demand that and people decide to humour me, what they’re giving me is not respect. Thus my demand falls to the ground like a broken moth, forceless.

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